“His discovery led to a paradigm shift within chemistry,” Lars Thelander, chair of the Nobel committee, told reporters on Wednesday.
Shechtman, who is based at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel, first encountered an image in his electron microscope in 1982 that seemed “counter to the laws of nature”.
At the time, atoms were believed to be packed in crystals in symmetrical patterns. But Shectman’s image revealed that atoms in his crystal were packed in a pattern that could not be repeated.
His findings were so controversial that he was asked to leave his research group, but eventually Shectman’s discovery “forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter”, according to the Nobel committee.
Prior to Shechtman’s discovery, the regular, non-repeating patterns of quasicrystals could be found in medieval Islamic mosaics.
Following Shechtman’s findings, which were detailed in a paper published in 1984, the mosaics have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level.
Scientists have since produced other types of quasicrystals in laboratories. In addition, naturally occurring quasicrystals have been fund in mineral samples from a river in Russia.
A Swedish company has also found quasicrystals in a certain type of high-grade steel which “reinforce the material like armor”, the Nobel committee explained.
Scientists are now experimenting with using quasicrystals in products ranging from frying pans to diesel engines.
“Unique materials have unique qualities. What’s important about the discovery of quasicrystals is the significance they have for basic research,” Nobel committee member Sven Lidin said during the prize announcement press conference.